About 2:30 a.m. Monday, 911 dispatchers in Richland fielded a pair of calls from Pasco, one for a fire on Sylvester and another for a medical emergency.
The calls may have been ordinary emergencies, but handling them in Richland was not.
Consolidating Mid-Columbia 911 dispatch operations took a decade of planning and debate and $500,000 apiece from the city of Pasco and Franklin County, but it’s a done deal.
Right on schedule, Benton County Emergency Services’ Southeast Communications Center — SECOMM — began handling all 911 calls originating in Franklin County, including Pasco, Connell and the Tri-Cities Airport.
The coverage includes Walla Walla Fire District 5 in Burbank, which had been part of the Franklin County system for logistical reasons.
A single center serving the entire region means there will be fewer dropped calls, faster response times and better communication between dispatchers, firefighters and law enforcement.
It’s a big win for the community and went off without a hitch, said Richland Police Capt. Mike Cobb, who oversaw the transition.
The transition began at the start of the 2 a.m. shift and was complete by 4:15 a.m.
SECOMM celebrated the moment with breakfast and treats for dispatchers and a welcome sign. But the nerve center of the region’s emergency services network was all business at mid morning as call takers and dispatchers fielded calls for help with wrecks, medical emergencies and fires.
Officials on both sides of the Columbia River have long wanted to consolidate 911 operations.
After sometimes acrimonious debate over how to accomplish the consolidation, the BCES board approved a transition plan that makes Franklin County and the city of Pasco full voting partners in the system a year ago.
Franklin County banked 911 taxes paid by phone customers to pay for the upgrade. Time was increasingly of the essence as its system aged to the point operators were scouring online re-sale sites for parts to keep it working.
Rising dependence on mobile phones added more urgency to the transition
Cell phone towers route mobile calls to the dispatch center nearest to the tower.
In Benton and Franklin counties, the two dispatch centers were just a few miles apart, making it easy for towers to direct calls to the wrong spot. Calls originating in Benton County would land in Franklin and vice versa.
Nearly 4 percent of all calls from wireless devices were going to the wrong dispatch enter, 3,151 in all last year. The calls had to be rerouted to the right spot, leading to dropped calls and delays during emergencies.
Cobb experienced that firsthand. He had called for help for a distressed boater on the Benton County side of the Columbia River, only to find himself speaking to Franklin dispatchers.
Franklin County’s eight dispatchers were offered jobs at SECOMM. Those that accepted underwent 10 to 14 weeks of training on SECOMM’s up-to-date equipment as well as protocol and procedures.
Cobb praised the Franklin dispatchers for adapting to the new environment and for their past work on aging gear.
“They have been performing miracles over there,” he said.
SECOMM is authorized to employ 43 full-time dispatchers, three part-time and four supervisors, an increase of 12.
The increase is needed to handle the volume of calls that originate in Franklin County, 83,656 for law enforcement in 2017 and 7,412 for fire.
SECOMM fielded 97,334 calls from Benton County last year and more than 175,000 non-emergency calls.
Franklin County and Pasco paid a collective $1 million buy-in fee to join SECOMM as full voting partners in the system. The investment acknowledges the investment BCES and its owners — Benton County and the cities of Richland and Kennewick — have made in equipment.
Franklin County and Pasco also paid the full costs associated with the 14-month planning and transition phase, $188,000 to date.
The consolidation should be invisible to area residents and does not affect the 911 fees levied on both landlines and mobile phones.
Franklin County’s dispatch equipment will be maintained for the time being because much of the data collected did not migrate to SECOMM.
Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514